Perhaps no chapter of his history of the ancient Mediterranean world is more interesting than that which discusses Aleris, a city of high culture. Located on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, Aleris preceded Athens in the arts and sciences, as well as in commerce and agriculture. Hieronymus claims that descendants of exiled Aleri citizens, who had settled in Athens, were the originators of Greek philosophy.
Be this as it may, Aleris was the envy of the Mediterranean. The city often found itself at war with other cities (or city-states). But such was the undaunted courage of her citizens and the advanced state of her military arts, that Aleris readily defeated her enemies on the battlefield.
According to Hieronymus, war in those days was the norm of “international” relations. Pacifism was unheard of. Yet, toward the end of the sixth century before the common era, something unprecedented happened: a peace party called the “Praxites” came to power in Aleris. The peace party constantly magnified the danger of war in order to make citizens feel dependent on their rulers and on the new political order. Hieronymus explains:
“Prior to the reign of the Praxites, the people of Aleris were spirited warriors. Proud of their heritage, disdainful of their enemies, superior to all in battle and second to none in their love of liberty. Fearing only the gods, and believing in a life after death, they were all the more disposed to fight and die in defense of their fatherland.
“Now, by means of deception and bribery, the Praxites came to power. The new rulers, consisting of sophists, rejected Aleris’s sacred tradition. They realized, however, that they would have to undermine the religion of their people to render them fearful of war, pliable, and dependent on their government.
“Accordingly, the priests were given lucrative government positions to silence them about the warlike intentions of Aleris’s enemies. Also, the Praxites curtailed and eventually eliminated public funds for the religious education of youth. In this way the anti-traditionalist peace party diminished the likelihood of any popular revolution led by the old religious leaders.
“Recognizing that war fosters public-spiritedness which could threaten their own power, the peace party established schools to foster pacifism. Paltry self-indulgence became the way of life of a once austere city. Gone was the manliness of previous times.
“The new educators of Aleris constantly intoned peace as the highest value. In truth, they were only animated by the desire for comfortable self-preservation. But by making the city’s educators part of the ruling elite, the Praxites had no fear of revolution from that source.
“Meanwhile the Praxites corrupted the Aleris army. Officers were allowed to retire at the age of 40, and with a pension that would make them virtually independent. High-ranking officers were co-opted into the peace party or made the overseers of some commercial or other enterprise. This bound the military to the ruling elite and the existing political order. There was no fear of a military coup.
“To further consolidate their power, the Praxites abolished private enterprise in Aleris. They understood that nothing makes a people more spirited than possessing their own means of livelihood. By making citizens dependent on government largesse, the peace party rendered the people of Aleris servile.
“Consistent therewith, the ruling elite greatly multiplied the number of government jobs. Although most of these jobs had little or no economic justification, they increased the number of citizens who would oppose any change in the political and economic status quo. In this way the peace party precluded revolution from below as well as from above.
“Despite the veneer of democracy, the peace party thus controlled all the levers of power in Aleris for many years. And since the mantras of peace and democracy were always on the lips of politicians, priests, and educators, the people were held in blissful ignorance of the tyranny that held sway in their city. They believed that their safety and welfare depended not only on the ruling elite but on the existing form of government.
“When any brave soul spoke up and sought to awaken people from this thralldom, he was ignored or maligned as an enemy of peace and democracy, incarcerated or exiled.
“Of course this condition could not possibly last. Although the rulers of Aleris signed peace treaties with their neighbors, the latter regarded such treaties as preparation periods for the next war, which eventually descended on Aleris like a thunderbolt. These peace treaties only gulled the people of Aleris and made them less vigilant.
“And so a slavish craving for peace produced only war—the last to be fought by a once brave and noble people.”